“White Chrysanthemum” by Mary Lynn Bracht (Sorry, I can’t hear you over the SOUND OF MY OWN TEARS)

Synopsis

For fans of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and Lilac Girls, the heartbreaking history of Korea is brought to life in this deeply moving and redemptive debut that follows two sisters separated by World War II.

Korea, 1943. Hana has lived her entire life under Japanese occupation. As a haenyeo, a female diver of the sea, she enjoys an independence that few other Koreans can still claim. Until the day Hana saves her younger sister from a Japanese soldier and is herself captured and transported to Manchuria. There she is forced to become a “comfort woman” in a Japanese military brothel. But haenyeo are women of power and strength. She will find her way home.

South Korea, 2011. Emi has spent more than sixty years trying to forget the sacrifice her sister made, but she must confront the past to discover peace. Seeing the healing of her children and her country, can Emi move beyond the legacy of war to find forgiveness?

Suspenseful, hopeful, and ultimately redemptive, White Chrysanthemum tells a story of two sisters whose love for each other is strong enough to triumph over the grim evils of war.

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Rating: 4.5 stars.

In Korea, the white chrysanthemum represents the flower of death, of mourning, of the grave. But in this book, the chrysanthemum represents the death of innocence: the brutal stripping away of one young girl’s hopes and dreams.

On that happy note, I want to warn you: this book is not easy to read. 

White Chrysanthemum traces the stories of Hana and Emi, two Korean sisters raised as haenyeo on Jeju Island and torn apart by the Japanese during World War II. Bracht alternates between 1943 and the present—Emi, a now-elderly woman, struggles to reunite with her long-lost sister, while Hana, still a young girl in 1943, endures unspeakable tragedies as a comfort woman. As a Korean myself, these stories hit particularly close to home.

Comfort women are women forcibly taken from conquered regions—Korea, China, and so on—during World War II to sexually satisfy the needs of Japenese soldiers. (I know. ICK. Major trigger warnings.)

She reaches for her sister’s small hand. Side by side they stand, listening to the waves tumbling onto the beach. The ocean is the only sound as the small group silently acknowledges her acceptance into their order. When the sun finally rises above the ocean waves, she will dive with the haenyeo in deeper waters and take her place among the women of the sea. 

The writing is beautiful, but in a raw, honest way that accentuates Hana’s innocence and makes her fate that much more heartbreaking. She describes the violence that Hana faces in graphic, heartbreaking detail, leaving me furious and horrified at the depths of cruelty that humans are capable of. However, Bracht also emphasizes Hana’s strength and resilience—Hana and Emi’s love for each other is truly something to behold.

White Chrysanthemum is so compelling in part because of its rich historical details. Hana’s ordeals allude to the atrocities of war, and the historical exploitation of vulnerable groups during times of crisis. An enormous amount of research has obviously gone into writing this book, and I WANT TO HUG THE AUTHOR FOR THAT. Books like these are why I love historical fiction—they give voice to the stories that need to be told.

I am a hanyeo. Like my mother, and my mother before her, like my sister will be and one day, her daughters, too—I was never anything but a woman of the sea. Neither you nor any man can make me less than that.

I adored the book’s depiction of the haenyeo—the independent women divers of Jeju Island. Historically, in Jeju Island, the women sea-dove as their main source of income and food, while the men fulfilled traditionally “domestic” roles. (This granted them a measure of power and influence that was virtually unheard of in basically the rest of Korea, which is super cool!)

The haenyeo, whose traditions are unfortunately dying out as less and less young women take up the trade of the sea women. ):

Above all, however, this is a book about recovery, about having the strength to go on despite having everything taken away from you. Hana and Emi’s tales end on a heartwarming note—so don’t worry, this book won’t leave you feeling completely emotionally drained.

If you ever decide to read it, brace your heart—and make sure to have a box of tissues handy.

me after reading

A huge thank-you to Penguin Group Putnam for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy via NetGalley. All opinions are mine and were not influenced by this in any way.

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Nab a Copy

Publication Date: January 30, 2018

Genre: Adult Historical Fiction

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let us chat

Do YOU cry easily when you read books? Are you a fan of historical fiction? What’s the last novel that left you in tears?

lots of love,

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20 thoughts on ““White Chrysanthemum” by Mary Lynn Bracht (Sorry, I can’t hear you over the SOUND OF MY OWN TEARS)

  1. i don’t think i’ll ever be emotionally stable enough to handle this book!! but you’ve done such a gorgeous job of describing the historical aspect of it, and i adore history, so i’m just going to have to read this!! ❤ i love your blog!!!!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • ahhh, thank you so much, this warms my heart. i would definitely recommend this book, and i can’t wait to see your review if you ever decide to pick it up! i absolutely adore historical fiction, just like i adore you. 😉 and YES, prepare for lots of tears + snot.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This book sounds both beautiful and horrible. I don’t know if I can read it!

    I think I cried pretty recently but I can’t remember the name of the book. I don’t cry in books very often, though. Maybe a few years here and there, but very few have left me sobbing and snotty.
    I remember hunger games book 1 did that to me, but that was years ago!

    Liked by 1 person

    • thank you so much~! 💕 and YES, k-dramas were actually where I first learned about them. there’s honestly not enough information about haenyeo translated into English online, which makes me sad :’) and yes, it’s definitely a very moving, gripping story, I would definitely recommend it for fans of historical fic!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a beautiful and compelling review! Thank you for sharing these thoughts with us. I have read one other review of this (somewhere, I cannot remember which blog for the LIFE of me!) and it didn’t grip me quite as much as your review did. I tend to shy away from WWII books; I feel like the space is overdone. But this sounds so unique! Terrifying and unique.

    You pointed out that this book is well researched. How were you able to identify the accuracies in this novel? Are there aspects of your life you can see reflected in these historical details?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you; I’m glad my thoughts made sense to at least one person :’) sending all the hearts 💖

      WWII books are super emotionally difficult to read (this one definitely was). I’ve grown up being familiar with quite a bit of Korean history! I’ve heard quite a few stories from older families/family friends whose parents lived in Korea during WWI, and I could definitely see some of their experiences, or at least parts of them, depicted in the novel. (though I’m by no means an expert on the subject, I’m unfortunately not sure if 100% of the historical details are accurate!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eh. I don’t expect you to be a complete expert and verify all the details of this novel. I was just curious if the moments rang true to the stories you’ve heard from your family. I love that you could see those stories in this text, even if they weren’t all positive ones. Thank you for sharing your experience, Hannah!

        Liked by 1 person

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